The following statement is remarkable:

“There is not a murmur of dissent, I said to that collective group of defence leaders that they needed to sell this message, they needed to get on board or get out,” he said. (ABC 2009)

Frankly, given that ultimatum, it would be indeed surprising were there any murmuring of dissent at all.  Still, to be fair, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Defence Department in need of a submarine or twelve, and new pay system, must also be in want of reform*.  

I can understand the frustration of ministers and senior leaders trying to change a bureaucracy such as Defence.  Bureaucracies have inherently high levels of inertia: in a bureaucracy, constancy, certainty and sameness are prized qualities.  

Coercion can be an effective tool in generating change, albeit often short-lived and risking a backlash.  But change is situational; a variety of strategies are needed (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979). Defence needs to adopt a more nuanced approach to ensure good decision-making and for the successful delivery of the Defence Reform Project.    

Further, care–good care–needs to be taken of dissenters.  That’s because silencing dissent coercively is a bad thing. While I’d be surprised to see the ravens gather and a set of gallows on Blamey Square, 

Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.  (Robert H Jackson, Nuremburg prosecutor)

The last thing Defence needs is a graveyard of intellectual and creative thought and input.  Dissenters—what Martin Luther King called the ‘creatively mal-adjusted’—provide new ideas, insights and creativity, exactly the thinking needed to help an organization adapt to new circumstances.  Organisations like Defence find it hard to hold talent at the best of times, and needs to work to harness dissent, not dissuade it. 

And silence should not automatically be assumed to represent support.  Without care, dissent can go underground.  It’s well-established that anxiety and fear can generate resistance to change. Resistance is a sound form of defence when there is uncertainty and a lack of trust.  That resistance can take the form of silence or verbal agreement combined with a lack of follow-up.     

Last, organisational change takes time.  Successful change often requires a transition in psychological state, and sometimes a long time is needed for such social processes.

A further suggestion extends to rules.  Wilson (1989) argues that there is a long-standing tradition of faith in the role of rules in government, from Aristotle through to Locke and Weber.  Locke, for example, considered that a few, simple clear, common rules help ensure freedom, and absence of the inconsistencies due to the arbitrary will of another.  

That aligns with research that argues change fail because organisations go straight to a structural re-organisation.  Change strategies need to take account of ‘the most powerful drivers of effectiveness—decision rights and information flow’ (Neilson, Martin et al. 2008).

A necessary part of the Defence Reform project should be to minimise the number of rules applied to the activities, function and behaviour of bureaucrats as much as possible, and tie those to decision rights and information flows.   

Last, Defence should take the opportunity to build an organization that is designed to change (Worley and Lawler 2006); after all, it needs to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment and be able to adapt to an unknown future.  But that will require a radical cultural shift, away from a reinforced top-down command and control, increasingly tight coupling, and the discouragement of dissent.

*with apologies, of course, to Jane Austen 

References 

ABC. (2009). “Get on board or get out, Defence head says.” from http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/05/07/2563703.htm?section=justin, downloaded on 7 May 2009.

Kotter, J. P. and L. A. Schlesinger (1979). “Choosing Strategies for Change.” Harvard Business Review.

Neilson, G. L., K. L. Martin, et al. (2008). “The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution.” Harvard Business Review.

Wilson, J. Q. (1989). Bureaucracy, Basic Books.

Worley, C. G. and E. E. Lawler (2006). “Designing Organizations that are Designed to Change.” Sloan Management Review 48(1): 19-23. 

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